Downtown rebirth boosts Seattle's image


SEATTLE -- Its setting on Puget Sound, surrounded by the Cascade and Olympic Mountains, has prompted many to call Seattle one of the most livable cities in the world. For those in the real estate industry, it may also be one of the most bankable.

"Seattle's physical beauty is only half the story," Seattle Mayor Norman Rice said. "It also has a lot to do with the spirit and commitment of the people in the city. The development and business communities as a whole are dedicated to the well-being of the city, and that is important."

Mr. Rice told members of the Urban Land Institute, in Seattle recently for the institute's spring meeting, that Seattle does shoulder its share of urban problems, including a homeless population that is increasing, problems in dealing with the re-training of laid-off workers and a rise in the number of AIDS cases.

"If we are to be a glowing economy as a nation, then the heartbeat is in the cities," he said. "We must make sure we're building and offering opportunity because the jobs, the commerce and the pedestrians are in the cities."

Until its own economy cooled off last year, Seattle had been at the top of most surveys measuring real estate potential. Now there is just one office building under construction downtown, a 405,000-square-foot project, and absorption of existing space has fallen below 1 million square feet per year.

But the Seattle metropolitan area, already the 19th largest in the United States, continues to attract new residents as fast as any other major market in the country.

Seattle has 516,000 residents, although the total market contains almost 2 million.

"Seattle has a more intimate scale than New York or Chicago," said Jerome Ernst, partner and planning director for TRA, a Seattle architecture firm.

"There are several attractive inner-city neighborhoods with proximity to downtown. And there is a mix of commercial, retail, service and housing in and around downtown that has been the focus of rehabilitation," Mr. Ernst said.

Weather is a major topic where the Emerald City is concerned, so nicknamed because virtually anything grows in the area because of its constant rains. Although total annual rainfall is not unusually high, it rains more often than in most other major cities, residents say.

(Figures compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration back up their feeling. According to NOAA figures for 100 selected communities in the U.S., Seattle's annual rainfall of 38.6 inches wouldn't rank it in the top 50, but its 158 days of precipitation per year are exceeded by only two other major cities: Buffalo and Juneau, Alaska.)

Seattle is a city dominated by Boeing Co., and though other high-tech firms such as software company Microsoft have helped lessen the city's dependence on Boeing for job growth, the overall economic impact of the aerospace giant is considered to be as large as ever.

As with other financial centers on the West Coast, Seattle has benefited from the rise of Pacific Rim countries into the world markets.

The Port of Seattle is the country's fourth largest, and half of the annual $30 billion two-way trade it accounts for comes through Japan.

An Urban Land Institute overview on the city suggests that it is still in line for above-average growth in the 1990s, led by aviation and high-tech industry and relying little on the older forestry sector, though not the kind of growth the city experienced in the 1980s.

And that sits just fine with residents. It will allow them time to fine-tune several public and private initiatives, including a 2-year-old scheme to overhaul downtown.

"What we've been striving for is to make downtown a place people want to be as opposed to where they have to be," said Paul Kraabel, president of the Seattle City Council.

"We think we've created a downtown that is everyone's neighborhood and that everybody feels comfortable there."

Seattle is the top office market in the Pacific Northwest. Its skyline boasts the tallest building west of the Mississippi River outside of Texas, the 76-story Columbia Seafirst Center, which due to recent changes in the city's zoning code cannot be duplicated today.

The city also has a great deal of water frontage, and although its central waterfront is no longer a working harbor, it does provide recreation and entertainment.

Another key element to the success of downtown Seattle has been its retailing component. Three major department stores -- Nordstroms, the Bon Marche and Frederick and Nelson -- have kept their flagship stores downtown even in the face of tough competition from suburban malls.

There are more than 7 million square feet of retail space in downtown Seattle, more than in all the suburban malls in the market combined.

And thanks to an aggressive marketing strategy spearheaded by the Downtown Seattle Association, those stores are doing well. In 1990, sales downtown increased 7.8 percent, topping even the best Seattle area mall, which posted only a 7 percent increase.

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